The heroes of Zomon Ahmadu
Braving a harsh climate and difficult terrain, women health workers are providing remote communities lifesaving services
By the time motorcycles carrying the group of health workers roars into the remote settlement of Zomon Ahmadu, their eyelids, hands and legs have adopted the rusty brown colour of loose sand. Team lead Victoria Garuba steps down gingerly from her motorcycle and leads the way into the village. She is exhausted from the two hours of precarious travel but pleased to have arrived at this community of about 600 people in a remote part of Bauchi State, north-eastern Nigeria.
The health worker’s fatigue disappears immediately at the sight of the cheering men, women and children, who rush forward with water to welcome them.
“This is the Emir’s palace,’’ says Victoria, 25, as she and the other four members of her team enter an expansive hut to begin setting up their clinic. “But he allows us to use it any time we come here. Usually, we sleep overnight in the village because the demand is high for our help. It is dusk by the time we finish most times and the villagers give us accommodation and food till the next day. They even call us doctors.”
Victoria leads one of nine healthcare teams established by UNICEF and the Bauchi State Primary Healthcare Development Agency, with European Union funding, to reach far-flung communities in the State. Each team consists of a lead, three community health workers and someone to keep records. Like Victoria, team leads are certified nurses or midwives qualified to provide antenatal and postnatal care, birth deliveries and routine immunization to women and children.
For Victoria and her team, Zomon Ahmadu is only one of 16 communities they visit each month. Because of the difficult terrain, motorcycles are needed to access them. The team starts each day at the Primary Health Care Centre in Tulu town, 300 kilometers from the state capital, where they pick up drugs, coolers and immunization kits from a cold store, before commencing their journey.
“The experience has been both wonderful and challenging,’’ says team member Maimuna Muhammed Abdullahi, 25.
“There are women who have given birth 14 times and have never been to a hospital - so some of their babies did not survive,” she says. “There was a woman in Rauta Geji who was in protracted labour and would not let anyone touch her. We had to call her brother before she agreed. We did palpitation and determined fetal distress and immediately referred her to the capital. This woman came from a family that had lost seven children in the past.”
The team has also experienced cultural, security and operational challenges. Security is a constant challenge because they travel on motorcycles on narrow pathways and sometimes must cross rivers on foot. With the settlements anywhere from 1-3 hours away from their base in Tulu, they often must sleep overnight in the communities.
“When we started, we could spend two hours in a community without anyone coming out to access health services. They thought medical services were harmful, initially,” says Maimuna. “We tackled this by engaging community heads. We report progress and challenges to them each time we visit a village. Gradually they started to trust us, and now they provide us with food and accommodation.”
Other members of the team include Fatima Ali, 31; Ukasha Ahmad Lame, 25; and Alhassan Saad, 36. They are paid a monthly stipend by the EU-UNICEF project and say the desire to help the villagers is what drives them.
“It is obvious that the villagers need our assistance. Some of the women even call if we are late in arriving,” said Victoria. “We are the only source of medical care that most of them will ever access. They call us doctors and we cannot let them down.”
Hussaina Salisu, a mother of seven from Zomon Ahmadu, has never been to the state capital or accessed medical care. When the 30-year-old became pregnant in 2018, she said the team saved her from a severe case of anaemia.
“The doctors gave me medicine the first time they came here, and I immediately felt a difference,” she said. “I was told that I lacked enough blood. But after the medicine I became well, and my baby is also healthy. My husband has three wives and all of us look forward to their visits.”